Piper Perabo, Covert Affairs

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Question: While I applaud network TV for trying to tap into the summertime scripted market (a bastion for cable's success), I can't help but be pretty unimpressed thus far. ABC's efforts have been almost universally disappointing. Scoundrels is a disaster, The Gates is painfully derivative (and for a show about vampires, werewolves, witches and who knows what else, is inexplicably boring), and Rookie Blue is a rip-off of Grey's Anatomy in just about every way (but, you know, with cops instead of surgeons). Based on the ratings for these shows (with the modest exception of Rookie Blue), it seems to me that ABC's foray into summertime has been a failure. Other networks are faring no better. Fox's new series The Good Guys really didn't appeal to me (even though my fidelity to Matt Nix made me really, really want to like it), and given its anemic viewership, I'm not the only one. Lie to Me seems to be one of the few that's doing reasonably well, but it developed a fan-base during the regular season, so I don't think it counts exactly.

 That said, I'm wondering if you have any theories as to why basic cable networks like TNT, ABC Family (although I must say I disagree about HugeI found it dour and charmless, much to my chagrin), FX and, most notably, USA have such a grasp on summertime scripted programming while the basic networks are foundering. What is it that cable is doing so right and the big four are doing so wrong?

I look at USA Network in particular and wonder if it's primarily an issue of branding. USA seems to have the best grasp on what it is as a network and has built a portfolio of shows that all seem to work together on a schedule (indeed, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who watches one show on USA and doesn't watch at least two others). I do wish USA would branch out and make some riskier moves at times, but when looking at the success of their programming model, it's hard to argue. Indeed, USA's newest series, Covert Affairs, looks like it'll be yet another fun, light-hearted dramedy feather in USA's cap that will do very well (pairing it with White Collar was yet another strategic boon). That said, I'm more apprehensive about Covert Affairs than I have been about other USA series. I've never been much impressed by Piper Perabo and honestly don't think she can anchor a show. Have you seen the pilot? Does she pull it off? Or is it more like watching Perabo trying desperately to be Alias's Jennifer Garner and failing miserably? I'd love to hear your thoughts.—Lacy

Matt Roush: Let's start with USA. In some ways, I look at that network as the cable equivalent of CBS. It knows what works for its audience and its brand and it stays mostly on message. Which means a lot of sameness from show to show, with a few doing the job better than others. (I'm particularly fond of Burn Notice and White Collar right now, but can make the case for others, while finding few of them qualifying as actual can't-miss appointment TV). I too wish USA would try a bit harder to surprise us, but like you said (which also applies to CBS's schedule, excepting the standout rookie The Good Wife), why mess with success? Covert Affairs has the look of another winner. Not because it's great; it's a bit too cutesy for my taste—which applies to the lead performance and a few of the more whimsical subplots and characters—but as a harmless caper paired with White Collar's second season, if it doesn't click I'll be surprised. And I tend to enjoy USA's shows more once they get past setting up the premise in their overstuffed pilot episodes, so I'll keep an eye on that one.

While I more or less agree with you about the broadcast networks' mostly feeble attempts to try scripted shows in the summer—you left out NBC's burn-offs, which may be the worst of the bunch—I'm glad they're at least trying something other than mind-numbing reality in a few time slots. One of these days, I'm hoping we'll witness the next Northern Exposure and have something to celebrate. As I noted in a recent magazine review, the difference between network and cable in the summer is that many cable operations put their very best shows on during the summer, promoting the heck out of them. With the networks, that is certainly not the case. The most we can hope for (and rarely get) is something too offbeat to air during the regular season that can be nurtured during the off-season. Maybe next summer ...

Question: So is Damages officially dead? If so, will you miss it, especially after this last season? Do you think Glenn Close will stick with TV or try and make a go again in movies?—Kevin

Matt Roush: Where FX is concerned, it really is over for Damages. (And I'm still averaging several letters a week from very upset fans.) After the first year, FX gave the show two seasons to catch on, and while season 3 was a vast improvement over 2 in terms of quality and story, it didn't draw an audience big enough to justify the expense of a star-heavy show filmed in New York. This was a business, not a creative, decision. Yes, I'll miss it, but I looked at the third season as something of a gift and was glad the story wrapped with as much finality as it did. I'd love to see a fourth season, but I'm satisfied with what I got. Regarding Glenn Close: Who knows? If she could find movies with characters as juicy as Patty Hewes, I'm sure she'd be thrilled. But those are far and few between. I'm betting we'd be more likely to see her return to theater for a bit while developing new projects for TV, whether on network or basic and pay cable. (She'd be very much at home on Showtime or HBO if not back on FX or even AMC, I'd think.)

Question: I'm curious to know your thoughts on the following: Is anyone at home in TV Programmer Land these days? It was bad enough when Nick at Nite and TV Land stopped showing wonderful old classics like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show in favor of perpetual repeats of more contemporary shows that are also in an endless loop on other channels. But then, Syfy switched to reruns of Star Trek/Stargate variations, ghost-hunting "reality" shows, and threw wrestling and James Bond movies into the mix, not to mention some of the most disgusting slasher films ever made. The final insult, to me, is the fact that TCM is apparently moving away from the classic films that I used to look forward to in favor of more contemporary films. What's going on? I know money probably is the deciding factor in all of these cases, but do these channels care at all about their viewers?—Patricia

Matt Roush: The one I can't get my mind around is Cartoon Network starting to air live-action series. What's happening here is an evolution in cable where certain networks are trying to expand or bring younger and more diverse audiences to the party. It's often called "re-branding" to make the channels less "niche," and Syfy has certainly taken its critical lumps for delving so heavily into the reality marketplace (let alone wrestling), but for them, it has paid off. Some of the more sensational shows on History, A&E, TLC to name a few also baffle me, but the argument in each case is that it brings a younger audience which may attract more advertising dollars. I was a bit alarmed at your gripe about the commercial-free Turner Classic Movies, which I only wish I had more time to indulge in (even in the summer). I called up their monthly calendar, and while I do so see an occasional title from the '80s, it still seems to me their definition of "classic movie" hasn't strayed nearly as much as AMC's (a channel I now go to for original series, not movies).

Question: Why is it that shows that are critically acclaimed but lower on viewership are never recognized with awards or nominations? Shows like Friday Night Lights, Chuck, Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars are (or were) cult favorites of fans and critics alike because of their great writing and acting, but you won't see any of them nominated for an Emmy. Conversely, I can't name a single person I know who watches Two and a Half Men, but it's a very popular show for some reason, and its actors seem to be perpetually nominated. Granted, I am a total TV snob, but do the committees who decide award nominees care more about ratings than quality? During Oscar season, it seems that the quirky, little-known, barely-seen movie is nominated over the megabucks blockbuster almost every time. Why are the circumstances different for TV?—Joanna

Matt Roush: A couple of things at play here. We've griped for years about the cold shoulder Friday Night Lights got from the start at the Emmys. Maybe if it had aired on cable, it would be different, because the other side of the equation is that many cable series whose numbers pale by comparison to network shows are Emmy darlings (Mad Men as the most obvious example). Shows on the WB and the CW have never been taken seriously by the Emmy voters, perhaps being seen as part of a "youth ghetto" or some such ridiculous notion. But if you make some noise on cable, especially the pay channels (although FX, TNT and USA and a few others break through from time to time), the ratings seem to be immaterial. It is perverse that the Oscars often reward box-office duds while the Emmys tend to ignore terrific shows that are deemed unsuccessful, and that's especially true with network series, which tend to get canceled quicker than on cable. And while I hear you on Two and a Half Men, I think it's dangerous to dismiss a show merely because it's popular. (And I hear gripes quite frequently from fans who wonder why top-rated shows like NCIS and the various CSI shows are snubbed as well.) Case in point: I will personally be very annoyed if The Big Bang Theory, now a monster hit, doesn't make the cut for best comedy this year.

Question: We've seen a bunch of hour-long comedies that were/are relatively "successful" from a critical or popular or awards-wise point of view, stemming all the way from Ally McBeal (or earlier?) to Desperate Housewives to Ugly Betty to Chuck to Glee; so, on the flipside, have there been successful half-hour dramas that have been nominated in the drama categories in the Emmys (or other award shows with set comedy/drama categories)? I see shows like United States of Tara and Nurse Jackie that are more dramatic than comedic, and yet both shows have always been classified as comedy. Are there set guidelines as to what would constitute a half-hour show to be classified as drama, or is it simply the producers/network/writers' call to place their show in whichever category (perhaps the category they think they have a better chance of getting a nomination, and is that why there aren't a lot of half hour dramas)?—Belinda

Matt Roush: You have to go pretty far back in TV history to find a time when dramas were 30 minutes long and taken seriously: shows like the original Dragnet and various other crime dramas of the '50s and '60s, early Westerns, and anthologies like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Twilight Zone. More recently, Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories anthology aired in a half-hour block and got some awards attention, but beyond that, I'm coming up blank. It's true that some half-hour "dramadies" often feel more dramatic than comedic, but they're billed as comedies—"dark comedies," to be sure—and are entered as such (by either the network, studio or producers) into the various competitions. This can be both an advantage and disadvantage. The better serio-comedies give their stars and writers lots of meaty material (see Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie), but when it doesn't play funny, the voters may not be inclined to vote for it.

Question: I agree with Erin's question from last week's Ask Matt column about how well the All-Star additions are serving So You Think You Can Dance this season. I've watched since Season One and am one of the series' most outspoken fans. I absolutely ADORE it. Yes, all caps ADORE IT TO PIECES. I am immensely enjoying the return of (most) of the All-Stars, although I have to say that I do wonder how they were given "all-star status," because I seriously question a couple of the choices. Bygones. However, like Erin I am so completely drawn to some of the All-Stars that I can't keep my eyes on their new partners during the dances! And that realization, Matt, gave birth to the best idea Nigel Lithgoe never had: Let's have a true All-Star season populated entirely by All-Stars! Would that not be just awesome? I'm sure many of them aren't available or might not want to compete, but at this point they have so many to choose from, I'm sure they could cast it. In the meantime, I'll keep enjoying the ones who are with us this season, and I'll hope that more of the newcomers will be able to shine through.—Katherine

Matt Roush: And if not an actual season of "all-star" competition, which I agree would make a great show (or maybe a shorter-duration rematch), then definitely Dance should present more "all-star" or "greatest dances" specials. It is a thrill to see them again, and I loved watching Mark and Courtney recreate one of their classic dances last week. More of that on results night, please.

Question: Is it me or does anyone like this new show The Good Guys? I can't believe how awful it is. Colin Hanks is just OK and Bradley Whitford is terrible. I have seen him do better, so why would he lower himself to this type of acting?—Helaine

Matt Roush: The show hasn't exactly caught on this summer, so it's clear you're hardly alone in not being amused. But Bradley Whitford is consciously doing comedy here. It may not tickle your funny bone, and there's no question it's a very broad performance, but lighten up. It's summer.

Question: To my surprise, The Gates was far more interesting than indicated in your review in last week's magazine. It was well directed, acted, with a creative and imaginative storyline. I look forward to seeing how the series develops.-Kathleen

Matt Roush: I wouldn't get too attached to it, given the lackluster ratings. But I hope for fans' sake, as I always do, that it gets to the end of its initial run to give viewers a chance to see as full a story as possible. While I did damn The Gates with faint praise by noting that at the very least it was more inviting than Happy Town, I do agree it's the best among ABC's summer scripted offerings. My problem with it is tone: Is it a horror soap, a Stepford suburban supernatural satire, what? It feels like a mess to me, but at times an intriguing mess.

Question: I know you don't like Happy Town. But really, with only two more episodes, ABC went and canceled it again!! I don't get it! Why do these networks do this?? And they wonder why so many are turning to cable? Happy Town, for me, was just fun, and I really wanted to find out who the "Magic Man" was! I believed ABC would air them and so stuck with it after the first cancellation, since they said they would air the rest at such and such a time (no, I can't watch them online!). ABC (like other networks) has failed viewers again!! I'm sick of it!! Maybe I'll try new comedies on network TV (I mean, really, I can't stop watching The Middle or Modern Family!), but I think I'm done with new shows on the big networks (getting smaller though, as cable gets bigger). Okay, only if it's another Fringe or Human Target, I'd have to try it, but other than that, forget it!! I'm sticking to cable!—Connie

Matt Roush: I know how painful it is for any show to be yanked on and off the schedule, even one I now use as a benchmark for bad TV (that would be Happy Town), but I have to admit I was amused by your indignant certainty that you will never fall for the network lure again. Until the next time. Because there's always going to be a next time, and what if the next Happy Town is an unexpected success, like Fringe turned out to be? Besides, if you think Human Target is going to have smooth sailing in its sophomore season (on Fridays on Fox, yikes!), I have a feeling I'll be hearing from you again. Hope not, of course. But as I say every time this subject comes up, even when it goes badly, isn't it better to have watched a show you enjoy for as long as it lasts than to have never seen it at all?

Question: Am I crazy or did CBS have a death wish for Three Rivers before it was ever started? They promo'ed it all last summer so we couldn't wait for it to begin, and our family loved the show. Great cast, good story lines, it just seemed to have everything. Then CBS just killed the show with its scheduling. By putting it on Sunday night during football season, which often ended as late as 7:30 pm/ET, so it had to contend with 60 Minutes, whatever reality show was on and then Cold Case before it ever got on, sometimes as late as 11 pm, who would bother to watch it then? (I would record it on my DVR and watch it the next day, but even that was a challenge since the programming schedule was so thrown off—such a pain!). I'm sure the local news on CBS affiliate stations suffered as well.

Now the rest of the Three Rivers episodes which had not been aired came back on to fill in during the summer hiatus. [The final episode aired Saturday night.] We still love the show and I just wanted to express my displeasure with CBS. For many years now, the overall quality of CBS programming has been far superior to the other major networks and CBS had something to be proud of; but I feel that quality may be slipping away. Bringing back a remake of Hawaii Five-O with Alex O'Loughlin in it, instead of giving him and Three Rivers a fighting chance, is going to backfire, I think. (I read somewhere that Alex O'Loughlin is going to be treated as somewhat of a sex symbol in this remake, which will be the selling point of the show. Too bad, because I think he deserves better than that). Maybe I'll be proven wrong about that, but my gut tells me it could very well be disappointing. Perhaps you didn't think much of Three Rivers and we just had poor taste. But I can only say that after it disappeared abruptly partway through the season, off and on since the winter, one or another of us in our family would mention Three Rivers and how much we missed it.—G May

Matt Roush: To play devil's advocate, the very fact that CBS aired promos all last summer that caught your attention is a sign CBS did not want Three Rivers to fail. (The network brought critics on the set last summer, and it's clear they spent some money putting this show on its feet.) Though it can appear otherwise, networks don't have a "death wish" about any show they put on the fall schedule, even the ones CBS chooses to air on Sundays after football. This situation is nothing new for CBS. It has had to deal with those overruns for as many years as I've been covering TV, and CBS analyzes the results accordingly. Three Rivers was not a very well reviewed show, that's true, but lack of media buzz and subpar ratings (coupled with the ill effects of the Sunday scheduling) pretty much doomed it. As for your surprise that CBS is trying to package Alex O'Loughlin as a sex symbol, where have you been? Ever since the short-lived Moonlight, his fan base has been all about the hubba-hubba. That's only going to intensity once Hawaii gets out there (although on that show, he's going to have plenty of competition). In the big picture of things, Three Rivers with its transplant storylines always ensuring the death of one character to help another survive may have been too much of a downer for the mass audience.

Question: I have a kvetch about the Syfy network's current nightly programming. I keep tuning to Syfy hoping to see fairly new episodes of current hits like Eureka or classic episodes of Battlestar, but instead huge blocks of Syfy's schedule are dominated by gross-out horror films or, worse, cheap CGI horror. Syfy relegates syndicated cult faves like The X-Files and Star Trek to sporadic daytime blocks, while their nightly programming relies on bad horror films. I don't equate science fiction with backpackers getting mauled by Dinosharks and Octospiders, and I'd much rather see classic X-Files than another bad monster movie filmed in the Ukraine. 

New Syfy shows like Caprica and Warehouse 13 could benefit from repeat primetime airings, but Syfy's programmers are more apt to reach for severed arms and flying piranhas than repeats of Stargate Universe. Do you have any insight on why Syfy has been so parsimonious with its own critically acclaimed shows in favor of schlocky horror flicks? Why is Syfy robbing their new shows of much needed primetime exposure?—Stephanie

Matt Roush: I admit I don't pay a great deal of attention to channels like Syfy except on the nights when it airs original series I may be inclined to watch (like Warehouse 13, which premieres a new season this Tuesday, and Fridays, where Eureka will be returning alongside the unfortunate Haven). You make a good point that it would behoove Syfy (or at least enhance its reputation) by giving its signature shows more of a spotlight throughout the week (and months of hiatus), but clearly the programmers have found the mix of sensational reality and Z-grade horror flicks to suit their business needs. Otherwise, why go there? Could also be a licensing issue with some shows that limit the number of times they can be repeated, but where the classics like X-Files are concerned, it's also possible that they've exhausted much of their shelf life for now. At least where the bottom line is concerned.

Weigh in with comments below, and don't forget to send all questions to askmatt@tvguidemagazine.com and follow me on Twitter at @RoushTVGuideMag

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